JWR Articles: Live Event - The Beethoven Experience (Featured composer: Ludwig van Beethoven) - August 5, 2011

The Beethoven Experience

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Everything begins to coalesce

By the end of the third day of The Beethoven Experience everyone (performers, audience, lecturer—even your reporter) had hit their stride and realized just how incredibly rich such a collective journey can be.

Seeing the music come alive—even with the inevitable human and physical-plant distractions briefly destroying concentration or shattering a shared moment—will always remain a vital part of understanding it. CDs, DVDs and their like have the advantage of capturing a performance at a singular time (some to be savoured over and over—the rest sent to the Flea Market bins) but live readings—necessarily—can never be recreated.

Therein are two arts: studio recordings cause players the tension that every take could be redone, whereas concerts can never be “edited” on the fly (all the more reason to observe exposition repeats many of which were dropped over the present cycle).

After just one performance Wednesday, the Penderecki String Quartet brought three of Beethoven’s quartets to life within the span of three and one-half hours today.

Following Jeffrey Stokes deftly setting the contextual stage (employing sly humour to underscore his musical points is a special skill of the affable musicologist), Op. 95 began the day’s program.

With Jeremy Bell sitting in the first stand, there was never a doubt that the “Serioso” subtitle would more than live up to its composer-designated name.

From the initial Allegro con brio, it was clear that no prisoners would be taken even if it took a few measures to solidify the attacks. Once D-flat heralded the coda, the music seared to the point of setting the bows aflame and melting the resin. How infuriating that the consequent quiet adieu was rewarded with just a split second of gasping silence only to be soiled by a sfz cough from the bleachers.

Viola (Christine Vlajk) and cello (Jacob Braun) combined to great effect in the Allegretto, where the ensemble’s whispered pain was simultaneously poignant and mesmerizing. But the vrai highlight was the ensuing (immediately: attacca subito said it all) Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. Its precious few minutes riveted the crowd from first anguished cry to the Più Allegro, which threatened to split the heat-talkative roof beams of the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts wide open and share the boisterous art with customers of the Island Queen.

That was hard to top—the multi-sectioned final frame needed more conscious measures of “relax,” adding vital contrast to the previous heat and—relatively—the heady drama still to come. When this exceedingly delicate balance is achieved, this could well become the next benchmark for the F minor quartet.

To allow the Waterloo-based musicians a much-deserved breather, Stéphane Lemelin—as he did yesterday—took the stage to offer his current view of Piano Sonata No. 31. Being the relative major (A flat) to the preceding (F minor) work was likely not a coincidental stroke of exemplary programming. The audience was happily fed not only an aural sorbet (to quote artistic director James Campbell earlier) but a highly impassioned, lyrical reading of this deeply personal essay.

Only a somewhat wayward Trio of the Allegro molto and brief irregularities from the ever-challenging inner voices of the fugue’s inversion gave any cause for concern. The remainder—notably the frequent transitions—steadily added to the sense that most certainly Beethoven was amongst us.

Op. 127 was Jerzy Kaplanek’s first-desk assignment. He dove in with purposeful authority that made the opening Maestoso (and its G major return) a model of lead-by-body-language-example. Although four players were on stage, magically, all that could be heard was one.

The Adagio had many sublime moments—especially during the secretive Adagio con moto—but couldn’t maintain the sense of harmonic arch and big picture design. The Scherzando readily lived up to its expected playfulness even as the incredible Trio got the better of Kaplanek on a couple of occasions.

The Finale boasted an engaging sense of rustic celebration led by ever-solid cellist Jacob Braun (overall the most consistent member of this uniformly skilled ensemble). The final Allegro con moto had a marvellously dreamy hue which deservedly drew the appreciative crowd to its feet.

To conclude the afternoon, with Kaplanek once more playing first violin, Op. 132 was next in line.

Not surprisingly, given the gruelling workload, it couldn’t revisit the intensity of Op. 95 or artistic magic of Op. 127. Still, the Heiliger Dankgesang (a convalescent’s holy song) on its own was more than worth the price of admission. Unity of sound, attack and an ideal balance were collectively applied to the most intimate writing thus far, capturing every soul in the hall and not letting go until the final, ethereal F major “diminuendo al niente” brought the assemblage to a thankful, reverent standstill. Miraculously, no other human or mechanical intervention spoiled the chance for all—on either side of the footlights—to reflect on just what had been so lovingly delivered. Merci mille fois.

The evening menu overflowed with high art and gargantuan challenges.

For their last contribution to the cycle and the only C-sharp minor score of the lot (just five of the 16 are centred in the minor mode), the New Zealanders probed the depths of Op. 131. The result ranged from reverent—if at times just short of unified ensemble—to otherworldliness and a certain looseness that added a tad more drama than Beethoven intended. With so much to recommend, there is still a further degree of “secure” required to lift the level of playing to the same plane as the art.

To resolve the dilemma of which finale to close off Op. 130, Stokes and the intrepid Lafayette Quartet chose a very Canadian solution: compromise, eh?

Thus the final measures of the penultimate Cavatina were offered first—the better to set up a truncated version of the “substitute” Allegro: the composer’s last gasp at quartet writing.

Well intentioned as this was, it failed on several counts: (a) those expecting to hear the B-flat major quartet from the beginning had their palettes surprised by the unexpected, out-of-context appetizer (b) the second Finale was never really heard—just a snippet; Why not have played it all for the willing at the pre-concert chat? (c) the necessary page shuffle by the performers contributed to a rare mis-start (Alla Danza Tedesca), adding needless insult to injury for all parties.

As for the actual performance, there were many fine moments in the early going even if the Presto was a nickel short of full-fledged “panicoso”—notably the hair-raising Trio.

When the original Grosse Fugue did arrive, the players made a valiant attempt but couldn’t overcome a surfeit of shady pitches and a preponderance of vertical declamation (a primary tool for keeping the disparate voices at least together) where a far more “dangerous” horizontal construction and delivery could have brought the mighty opus through a much more satisfying journey and conclusion. Don’t misunderstand—as the vast majority of the audience immediately stood and heartily cheered the “combatants” for all that had been seen and heard—the level was, nonetheless quite good. Knowing that, and the still untapped further potential of these incredible scores, we remain greedy for more. JWR

Historical Perspectives/Contemporary Comparisons

Quartetto Italiano

Op. 95
Quartetto Italiano
Philips, 6880 056
Recorded in 1975

Beethoven’s return to string quartet writing in 1810 is a marvel of less is more. Twice pitting the prime tonality of F minor against the apparently distant D major (the glue being G flat’s alter ego, F sharp) the music has many moments of harmonic wonder. Add to that the frequent use of closely voiced minor ninths and the overall feeling of anguish and angst is further supported. Tellingly, there are no repeats until the Allegro assai vivace ma serioso (but just one there: the master prefers to make his “repetitions” that suit the overall form but have curious differences). In short, Beethoven is at his most economic, totally in control of an emotional outburst that is staggering in its brief utterance.

The performance captures much of the underlying art and mood, wanting just a tad more harmonic weight at the key junctures and greater steadiness of pulse and, accordingly, razor-sharp rhythm in the second movement. Absolutely divine is the Allegretto ma non troppo where the dark side dominates and the fugal writing is beautifully balanced. What turmoil there must have been in the composer’s mind to craft such a compelling, complex result. Little wonder this movement never really ends.

Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110
Alfred Brendel
Philips 438 374-2
Recorded in London, October 1973

A perfect meeting of minds makes this performance one for the ages. Arguably a single movement that pays homage to the first principle of tonality (tonic/dominant) and the art of the fugue, Brendel realizes Beethoven’s autumnal reflections with incredible poise and sense of beauty. Few performers before the public at any time truly understand, much less act upon, the harmonic flow beneath the notes. The singular pianist unerringly sets up the transition to, apparently, distant E major (or is it just too much work to write it out in F-flat?) during the Moderato cantabile; the final cadence confirming the return home and a last adieu to the 64ths (leggiermente) is given just the slightest hesitation that speaks volumes in an instant. Form comes into play when the Scherzo’s last repeat is purposely, wisely neglected. Perhaps most impressive of all is the ensuing Recitativo and “Aria.” While only completing one opera, Beethoven’s operatic acumen still took stage—as here—when even more of his deepest feelings needed an outlet. The fugue is a model of control and substance; neither artist “shows off” but rather revels in the voices finding their place, expansion/contraction/inversion and resolution. With Brendel, every note literally rings with conviction and truth.

Op. 127
Artemis Quartet
Virgin Classics, 50999 628659 0 6
Recorded in Berlin (Teldex Studio), June-July 2010

The only major concern with this invigorating, beautifully recorded rendering of the first of Beethoven’s “late” quartets, is the penchant for micro luftpauses being inserted as the music suddenly shifts gears (rhythmic, dynamic or both). That affectation makes for very tidy entries but robs the art of heady spontaneity, resulting in moments of needless uncertainty. Many unforgettable performances led by conductor Rafael Kubelik took risks in favour of the heady/complex thoughts and ideas being presented—especially during transitions—and if a touch of “untogether” found its way into the hall, no one ever cared, being so overwhelmed by the passion unleashed.

That said, here’s a worthy addition to any collection. Seldom has silence been used so effectively and truly felt; the Scherzando’s fleeting/flitting Trio sets the bar for all other performances to be measured against. The Finale is a constant marvel of texture and tone, with cellist Eckhart Runge effectively anchoring his colleagues or soaring above them when required.

Op. 131
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
DGG 419-439-2
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Recorded September 1997, Konzerthaus, Vienna

Many conductors cannot resist the allure of putting this wide-ranging personal testament into their own hands and savouring its bounty of greatness for themselves, their players and large-hall audiences. While, necessarily, much of the intimacy is lost, hearing the work at full bore can only add to the desire to re-hear as intended, steeped in a broader perspective.

Leonard Bernstein digs deep into the music’s fabric like few others can. Knowing he has one of the finest string sections in the world gives him the confidence to take chances and let the music lead the way.

While in C-sharp Minor, the work could also be seen as an intimate study of all of the possibilities of a single pitch: C sharp. The goal of the first half step and home tonality also has much to say disguised as D flat, establishing the mode of A major or being the easy “glue” between E major and its relative minor. Bernstein knows all of this and more (would that others further explore why the notes are on the page so thoroughly), driving/sculpting the seemingly seven disparate sections into a complete, largely satisfying whole. Only the ongoing integrity of the pages of single eighths—whether preceded by a quarter in the triple metre or a quarter and an eighth—duples and the exaggerated lifts in the Presto’s Adagio sections cause concern.

Bernstein’s own sense of gritty, nuanced drama (Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile) and inner child revelling in the fun (also the Presto), knowing full well of the dark clouds ahead, keep the ear continuously engaged and delighted in turn. Put this recording at the top of the “sound-enhanced” version of Beethoven’s magical study of human existence.

Op. 130
Julliard String Quartet
Sony SK 62792
Recorded June 11-13 1996, Alexander Hall, Princeton NJ

Julliard String Quartet

Here is an impassioned performance that amply displays the value of integrated ensemble rather than four distinct soloists. The frequent handing about of the ideas (notably in the Andante con moto) gives the feeling of a single mind at work. The Presto is a marvel of consistent pulse (never as easy as it may seem), yet suffers from a 3-2-1 dynamic effect (where 3 is the loudest) in the 6/4 section where a full-on forte would be much closer to Beethoven’s powerful conception.

The concluding Grosse Fugue boils over with the composer’s overwhelming sense of musical angst. Not surprising at all that the subject is so dependent on half-step intervals, allowing the music to twist and turn in every possible way—and it does. The rhythmic challenges are largely met, with just a few moments when absolute duple teeters into triple. Note lengths often come across a tad chubby when staccato is wanted, but the tone and blend of these performers is intoxicating for players and listeners alike. The courage to play a real sotto voce in the Cavatina is only found in the recapitulation; less is more from the start could have lifted this movement into the realm of superb. JWR

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String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127 - Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 - Ludwig van Beethoven
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